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Toddler on ventilator fights for his life as COVID takes toll on U.S. children

HBS Reporting

Toddler on ventilator fights for his life as COVID takes toll on U.S. children

Toddler on ventilator fights for his life as COVID takes toll on U.S. children

No one else in the family was sick. Adrian James just had a bit of a cough. She gave him cough syrup and put a humidifier in his room.

But by Friday he was sweaty and his breathing was labored. Jackson took him to an emergency room in her small town of Mount Vernon, Illinois. Doctors and nurses there did a chest X-ray and swabbed him for COVID – and then airlifted the child to Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital in St. Louis, about 80 miles (129 km) away.

Jackson followed in a car, her grandmother at the wheel. They made the usually 90 minute-drive in about an hour.

“I didn’t know if he was going to make it or not,” Jackson said. “I was very emotional and just very upset.”

Her son is one of more than 840,000 children under the age of four to contract COVID-19 in the United States since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Hospitalizations like Adrian’s remain rare: less than 1% of children with reported cases of COVID-19 are hospitalized and children account for 2.5% of all COVID-19 related hospitalizations, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

While nationally COVID cases and hospitalizations have fallen, parts of the United States are being ravaged by the highly contagious Delta variant, which Adrian has.

By late Tuesday night, he was intubated and heavily sedated, wrapped in his baby blanket with his favorite Paw Patrol stuffed animal at hand.

Over the past couple of days, his lungs have been able to do more of the work of breathing, and it is possible that he may be removed from the ventilator soon.

The United States last week crossed the milestone of 700,000 COVID deaths since the pandemic started, including 520 children. U.S. health regulators will meet later this month to consider approving the Pfizer/BioNTech (PFE.N), vaccine for ages 5-11, followed later this year or early next year with a decision for those under 5.

Transmission of the virus remains high in every state except California and Connecticut, CDC data show.


Adrian, who will be 3 years old next month, had developed pneumonia in his left lung. He was breathing fast, trying to gulp air with 76 respirations per minute, nearly twice the normal 40, Jackson said.

At the hospital, doctors and nurses wearing masks, face shields and protective gowns sedated him and put him on a breathing tube attached to a ventilator in the intensive care unit.

Jackson has been sleeping on a couch in his room in the ICU. She does not know how her son contracted COVID. She had COVID last summer. She says she did not get vaccinated for COVID due to a rare auto-immune disorder called Guillain-Barre syndrome that she contracted as a result of a flu shot when she was 16. The syndrome, which is incurable, causes nervous system damage.

Adrian’s father, who is home with their younger child in Illinois, received one dose of a COVID vaccine but not the second dose, she said. Maybe, she thinks, someone at work passed it to him, although everyone in the factory where he is employed is supposed to wear masks and practice physical distancing.

Jackson, 21, is profoundly grateful for the care her child has received. She is beginning to believe that it will save his life.

And she hopes that Adrian’s story will help people understand what it could mean to pass the virus to young children and to people with vulnerable immune systems.

“I just want people to realize it is serious,” she said.

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